New York

Elizabeth Newman

Elizabeth Newman’s first New York show includes a number of sculptures—household objects, such as furniture, clothing, and utensils, that have been transformed into synesthetic fetishes by the addition of materials like wax, feathers, and talcum powder—that were part of the artist’s installation at the 1991 Spoleto Festival U.S.A., in Charleston, South Carolina. There they worked effectively to reanimate the history of an 18th-century home, and, although a gallery setting inevitably pales by comparison, Newman’s alchemy remains as potent as ever, transforming a normally sterile place into hallowed ground by means of an uncanny mix of domesticity and religious ritual.

Most of Newman’s works deliberately evoke childhood in ways that range from the obvious (the pair of bronzed baby shoes placed in a far corner) to the oblique (the small, wooden bed frame piled with loose feathers). The latter work epitomizes Newman’s light touch in altering the familiar; although strange, the result always intensifies the nature of the original object. Configurations such as the semicircular arrangement of seven stools, and the two wall-mounted seats holding stacked disks of yellowish wax, a material that seems both common and precious, often look quasi-religious. By elevating the everyday to the sacred, the artist approximates the workings of memory itself.

Like Freud’s “secret memories”—memories that are significant only insofar as they screen off more important ones that have been repressed—the artist’s evocations of specific childhood experiences may be seen as unmistakable links to earlier, more primal memories of the mother. An unseen presence throughout this show, the absent mother is unavoidably invoked by the oceanic whiteness and powdery smell of a massive shelf holding over 200 talc-filled cups and an adjoining bathtub filled with talc and a solitary turd. A more overt but still displaced reference to the mother features a large, clear plastic container of milk (commonly used to wean calves) that hangs nipple-down, slowly dripping its contents into a white bowl. This veritable shrine to the breast is flanked on the right by several more bowls on a shelf and is faced in the front by an old wooden rocking chair. This ensemble offers a distinctly Kleinian alternative to Lacanian characterizations of childhood development, such as Mary Kelly’s “Post Partum Document,” 1973–78—here Newman has succeeded in creating an eerily palpable remnant of the pre-Oedipal, without relying on a litany of explanatory theory.

Newman’s archaeology of childhood memory took on a political valence in her Spoleto installation, where some of the works that appeared again in this show played an important role in exploring the special relationship (once prevalent in the South) between African-American nursemaids, or “mammies,” and their white charges. This was an intimate connection that the white children were encouraged to undervalue later in life and eventually to forget. The extreme whiteness of the talc and milk is less innocent in this frame of reference, functioning not only to signal the maternal, but also to “screen off” the memory of the black care-giver. Oddly enough, the current show represses all memory of the Spoleto “mammy” narrative, adding yet another level of amnesia to these works, which in turn intensifies their enigma. Newman’s sculptures are able to transcend specifics in order to communicate the shared experience of memory, inflected, in this show, by a palpable layer of melancholia.

Jenifer P. Borum